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It’s a dog’s life, full of lessons to learn

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:26 am

FAIRBANKS — When my dog looks at me, I know she’s staring deep into my soul, discerning my needs and wants so she can be the best dog ever. Or else she wants my Cheetos.

But seriously, dog owners know there’s more to dogs than just wagging tails and ubiquitous Cheeto-thieving. Dogs are intuitive, garnering information from our body language, smells, emotions and other cues, enabling them to be the perfect companions. Indeed, scientists believe dogs developed these traits thousands of years ago as they morphed from their wolf-like ancestors to fit into human society and evolve successfully into essential cohorts.

And Fairbanksans know dogs are working animals — most dogs want a job, a reason to get up in the morning. Mushers, police officers and other people who have dogs as working partners can tell you how excited those dogs are when their working clothes — badges, harnesses, etc. — are put on. Dogs need a purpose.

In W. Bruce Cameron’s bestselling novel, “A Dog’s Purpose,” we follow that instinct, that need to do something worthwhile, from the dog’s point of view. Cameron’s dog is born one afternoon in a ditch, the product of a feral female. Like all babies, it takes a while for self-awareness to kick in:

“One day it occurred to me that the warm, squeaky, smelly things squirming around next to me were my brothers and sisters. I was very disappointed.”

In this little mind, siblings were only there for one purpose — to push him aside and take all the food and mother loving for themselves.

He identifies his siblings by attributes — Fast and Hungry (brothers) and Sister. They learn to forage, hide from danger and discover the world around them. They are captured by Senora, a woman with a big heart for strays, but not enough room to keep them. Still, she continues to collect them, and our four-legged hero finds himself, unlike his mother and siblings, drawn to the large creatures who stand tall on two legs and dangle acrid-smelling tubes from their mouths. Senora calls him Toby, and he adapts to the large yard containing numerous dogs of all shapes, sizes and temperament. He watches his mother escape by lifting the latch and running off.

When Senora’s rescue operation is closed down by the authorities, Toby and the other dogs are taken to the pound. Toby, who has been badly injured by an angry pit bull in the yard, is deemed unadoptable because his leg will never heal correctly. Along with the vicious pit bull and other discarded dogs, he is taken to a large room, where “I felt overwhelmed with a fatigue as heavy and oppressing as when I was a small puppy and my brothers and sisters would lie on top of me, crushing me. That’s what I was thinking as I began to sink into a dark silent sleep — being a puppy ... ”

He awakens from his nap surrounded by squirming puppies and another warm mother. This time, he’s a golden retriever, the result of a puppy mill, destined to become Bailey, and the lifelong companion to a boy named Ethan. He remembers his life before, short as it was, and remembers his attraction to humans. He also remembers how to open gate latches, from watching his first mother escape Senora’s yard, and he uses that trick to escape his new home, which leads him to Ethan.

Another life, and then he awakens as Ellie, a search and rescue dog. At last, he has found his purpose, and he uses all his senses to fulfill his purpose, including saving his human Jacob from death. A new owner, more rescues, a job-ending injury, and the final act of rescue, and Ellie lays her head down for a final nap, secure in the knowledge she has done as she was meant.

When she wakes again, as a male black Labrador, he is confused. What higher purpose can a dog have than to save a child from drowning? Why is he back? He is depressed, so the breeder hoping for a show dog sells him disappointedly to an unsuitable owner. With the memories of three previous lives in his head, the dog finds his way to a familiar place, to a familiar person, and realizes at that moment that all that has gone before was just rehearsal — learning, practicing, understanding — so he can now, finally, fulfill that ultimate purpose for which he, now Buddy, is destined.

The book is written entirely from the dog’s point of view, and we the readers begin to view the world as a dog does — not just with our eyes, but with our nose, our ears, our intuition.

“We stared at each other. It was, I realized, a human child, a male. His mouth broke into a huge grin and he spread his arms. ... we ran to each other, instantly in love.”

He feels the emotions of those around him, fear and joy and love, pouring off in waves, like the scents of flowers and trees. He understands what they need before they do, and he knows the good guys from the bad guys just by their smell and emotion waves. 

Toby/Bailey/Ellie/Buddy is a character we grow to love, because he is a dog, and like all dogs, his purpose is to love us. The love he has for all his humans, and his protectiveness, comes through in every thought and action.

This book is an excellent read, difficult to put down until the very last page, when Buddy finally realizes why he was born, why he had to experience and suffer the things he did. Because each life is built on the others before — the tricks he learned as Toby dictated his path as Bailey; the tricks he mastered as Bailey are integral to Ellie’s success; and all three former lives allow him to follow the path to get to that ultimate destination.

This is a book every dog lover should read. Cameron writes well; he stays in the dog’s head throughout the book, never straying into another viewpoint, but draws each scene so fully, it’s like being in everyone’s head.

One caveat, though — there are some parts in which Cameron’s details and writing are so poignant, so searingly agonizing, you might not want to read it in public. Unless you don’t care if people see how deeply you love dogs.

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at martinlibbie@yahoo.com.

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